Boris Yeltsin whirls in, out like a Kansas tornado

June 19, 1992|By Don Terry | Don Terry,New York Times News Service

WICHITA, Kan. -- Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin was beaming yesterday when he met Dmitri Antoniadi, a fellow Russian and a student at a university in this city on the Kansas plains.

But his smile grew when he was told that Mr. Antoniadi's father is the manager of a Pizza Hut restaurant in Moscow, part of the capitalist beachhead that the former Communist is so eager to see develop into an all-out assault on the Soviet past.

"I'll make a point of going to that restaurant," Mr. Yeltsin told Mr. Antoniadi and about 500 others in a speech at Wichita State University. "I hope he doesn't ask me to pay in dollars. I don't have any."

The audience laughed. Mr. Yeltsin waved and continued on a hectic four-hour tour that swept through this city like one of the tornadoes that have made Kansas famous from Moscow to Oz.

Mr. Yeltsin began at an Air Force base where warplanes were once on around-the-clock alert, ready to destroy the Russian homeland. Accompanied by his host, Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, Mr. Yeltsin then toured a meatpacking plant, gave his speech at Wichita State University, downed a lunch of barbecued pork and tried harvesting wheat.

Mr. Yeltsin was following a Russian trail first blazed in 1959 by Nikita S. Khrushchev, who whisked across the United States, savoring his first hot dog and marveling at the lush corn fields of Iowa.

JTC "The Midwest is more like central Russia than any other part of the United States," Ronald G. Suny, a professor of Russian history at the University of Michigan, said in a telephone interview. "It corresponds with central Russia: A great flat plain producing grain. So it makes a kind of symbolic sense for these leaders to go there."

Khrushchev had lunch on the farm of Roswell and Elizabeth Garst, near Coon Rapids, Iowa. Mr. Garst died in 1977, but his widow said the other day: "I hope he knows what's going on in Russia. I think it's great. He would, too. It's wonderful, their struggling along, becoming capitalists. When Mr. Khrushchev was here, I think everyone had fun."

The fun here began at McConnell Air Force Base, where the welcomers included Melissa Hettich, Miss Kansas World 1992.

Standing nearby was Maj. James E. Hazuka and his family. Major Hazuka has spent most of his 14-year Air Force career in the Strategic Air Command, whose only mission has been to bomb the Soviet Union on a moment's notice.

"It's great," he said. "This is something I thought would never happen, a Russian leader standing 50 yards away. I feel very good about the future, with only one exception: the economy. But I don't think Yeltsin can do anything about that."

Mr. Yeltsin quickly charmed the crowd of warriors and their families and friends when he talked of peace and then shook hands with some of the 300 people on hand.

The largest cheer came when he said, "There will never be war between our two countries, I am convinced of that."

Mr. Yeltsin said that some might wonder why he had decided to stop in Wichita, besides Washington the only city in the country on his schedule.

"I know you have not been showered with state visits before," he said, adding that he had come to Wichita to learn about agricultural techniques.

Later, Mr. Yeltsin toured Dold Meatpacking Plant, where he walked up to Marilyn Terto, 34, who was working on the hambone line.

How much do you make? Mr. Yeltsin asked her, to which she answered, $9.43 an hour.

"All right, all right," he said, flashing thumbs up as slabs of pork whirled past on hooks.

Melissa Dubois, 23, was one of the lucky Wichita State University students allowed in for Mr. Yeltsin's off-the-cuff speech on peace and the importance of young people being prepared to assume leadership in the future.

"It was very enlightening," she said. "It brought him down to the students. He went from an untouchable to a touchable."

Greg and Sandra Rau spent the week sprucing up their 2,000-acre spread. Their farm, a few miles from the Air Force base, was selected to give Mr. Yeltsin a taste of Kansas farm life.

But the visit came at a busy time for the Raus: Because of heavy rains lately, the farmers are behind in harvesting the spring wheat.

"It has been exhausting," Mr. Rau said. "But we're very proud."

The Raus turned their farm into a showcase, parking a fleet of shiny combines and tractors in a field for Mr. Yeltsin to inspect.

Mr. Yeltsin, seeming to know his way around farm machinery, climbed into the cab of a green combine, waved people out of the way and jerked it forward. Clara Belden, a farmer and a high school English teacher, watched Mr. Yeltsin, helped by Mr. Rau, drive the combine around the field.

Before he left for the airport for a trip to Canada, Mr. Yeltsin was asked what he would most like to take back with him from Kansas.

"Everything," he said.

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